It's been nearly one year, but we still point to Microsoft's Surface Pro as the best example of a full Windows 8 tablet with a high-res screen and an Intel Core i-series CPU. That configuration makes for an experience much closer to a full-power PC, but we've seen only a handful of similar models, with many more low-power slates powered instead by Intel Atom CPUs.
The Surface Pro 2 is close to release, with an updated fourth-gen Intel Core i5 CPU but the same thick, chunky design as the original model. It certainly sounds like the field is wide open for a serious competitor, and the new Sony Vaio Tap 11 fits the bill.
This is a slim, sharp-looking 11.6-inch slate, powered by (in our review configuration) a fourth-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD), and 4GB of RAM. It has a larger screen than the Surface Pro 2, but is thinner and lighter.
Both Windows 8 tablets base a lot of their promised functionality on the use of a proprietary keyboard cover. The Surface Pro version snaps on magnetically to create a laptoplike vibe, while the Tap 11 keyboard has a Bluetooth connection and can sit anywhere nearby, and only snaps on via a weak magnetic connection for travel.
Confusingly, the Vaio Tap 11 has a lower starting price, but our configuration costs more than a comparable Surface Pro 2. The Tap 11 starts at $799.99, but that's for an Intel Pentium-class chip (yes, they still make those). Our Core i5-128GB SSD config is $1,099.99, while a Surface Pro 2 with the same basic specs will cost $999. The final catch: Microsoft charges an additional $129.99 for its keyboard cover, while the Sony version is included, so let's call that a closely matched final cost.
If you're looking for a system that's 75 percent laptop and 25 percent tablet, go with a Lenovo Yoga, Dell XPS 12, or another hybrid. If you're in the opposite camp, looking mostly for a tablet with some laptoplike capabilities, the Vaio Tap 11 now feels like the best of the bunch, with its slim design, reasonably varied configuration options, and included keyboard.
|Sony Vaio Tap 11||MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)||Microsoft Surface Pro|
|Display size/resolution||11.1-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen||10.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|PC Memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||1,739MB Intel HD Graphics 4200||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000||32MB Intel HD 4000|
|Storage||128GB SSD hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
Compared with both generations of Microsoft Surface Pro tablets, which have identical physical designs, the Tap 11 is the hands-down design winner. It's thinner and lighter, despite having a larger screen (both have 1080p resolutions), and really feels very portable in tablet form.
As a handheld device, it works fine held in one hand, although the Windows button and Webcam end up on the left and right bezel edges when you hold it in portrait mode, as one would an iPad. Some of the major missteps of the Windows tablet experience fall on Microsoft and are common to all Windows tablets, but they still impact usability here. The tile-based interface doesn't scale to portrait mode in anything close to an efficient way, and if you're trying to navigate anything in the traditional desktop mode with the touch screen, forget it.
The back of the system has a slender fold-out kickstand. It's highly adjustable, and stays where you set it, unlike the Surface Pro 2 kickstand, which runs the width of the system and has two set angles (the original Surface had a single-angle kickstand). The downside is that the small kickstand is completely unusable in the lap, while the full-width Surface Pro, while not optimal, can at least work in the lap in a pinch.
Sony wisely includes its Bluetooth keyboard cover with the system, while Microsoft attempts to play some pricing sleight of hand by knocking $100 off its price, but charging about that much for the (practically required) keyboard cover. The Sony version doesn't attach via a magnetic hinge; instead its wireless connection allows you to move it anywhere nearby. It's certainly more flexible, but also lacks the more laptoplike feel of the Surface Pro's kickstand-plus-keyboard setup.
Both the Surface and Vaio keyboard covers are excellent, with real keys and small but usable touch pads. The Surface version has tightly packed, flat-topped keys, while the Vaio version has keys that are slightly smaller, set up island-style, with empty space between each key. The latter much more closely resembles current laptop keyboards, and feels marginally better to type on. However, it's thin, and in the lap it flexes a good deal even under moderate typing.
Both also include a touch pad. Sony's version is larger and includes a rocker-style bar for the left and right mouse buttons, and really helped the Tap 11 feel more productive and laptoplike.
But, I still like the snap-on hinge and soft-touch backing on the Surface keyboard cover better (the upcoming Surface Pro 2 version is also backlit). You could say the Vaio version is a better keyboard, but the Microsoft version is a better overall accessory.
Sony packs some bonus software in with the Vaio Tap 11 (and much of it also appears on other Vaio laptops as well), including ArtRage Studio, a painting and drawing program. There's an included active stylus, which clips on, but has no built-in slot to slide into. Nice to not charge extra for it, but we really do live in a post-stylus world now, for the most part.
The 11.6-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels -- the same as the Surface Pro and most other high-end laptops or hybrids. This is an IPS screen (that stands for in-plane switching), which gives it excellent off-axis viewing, but it's a bit on the glossy, glare-prone side.
|Sony Vaio Tap 11|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, microSD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC|
Connections, performance, and battery
The Vaio Tap 11 isn't as connectivity-friendly as most Windows 8 hybrids, principally because of its very slim body. Under an insubstantial-feeling plastic flap, you'll find one USB 3.0 port and a Micro-HDMI jack. A second flap covers a microSD card slot, and there's also an NFC antenna for wireless connectivity, if you happen to have an NFC-compatible device.
Much more so than with the Surface Pro or Pro 2, the Tap 11 offers some some pretty significant configuration options. The most important is CPU choice, ranging from an Intel Pentium processor in the $799.99 entry-level model (which still includes the keyboard cover) to our $1,099.99 Core i5 version, to even more expensive Core i7 versions.
Raw performance isn't the most important thing when it comes to ultraportable tablets and hybrids, especially as the Windows 8 tile interface has been finely tuned to run smoothly with nearly any processor, as have Windows 8 apps such as IE10. That said, the Core i5-4210Y processor runs fine, even for such a low-power chip aimed specifically the most portable of devices.
The Haswell-powered Microsoft Surface Pro 2 isn't available as of this writing, but compared with the Surface Pro from February, you'll find somewhat slower performance, likely because the Tap 11 uses a very low-voltage version of the new Core i5. But, it still has more than enough power for everyday tasks, such as online surfing, HD video playback, and office tasks. For mainstream users, the performance difference is negligible.
Battery life is where this system really needs to shine, and it performs reasonably well, if not exceptionally, running for 5 hours and 9 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. Unlike the Surface Pro, which powers its keyboard cover directly, the keyboard cover here has its own internal battery that recharges when the two parts are connected, so it gets a small advantage there. The Tap 11 ran longer than both the Surface Pro (we haven't had a chance to test the Surface Pro 2 yet) and the Dell XPS 12, a small-screen hybrid.
The Vaio Tap 11 isn't likely to be your all-day, every-day computer, but it shows just how thin and light a full-Windows 8, Core i5 tablet can be. There's some definite awkwardness wrestling the slender kickstand and floating keyboard into submission outside of a narrow range of tabletop uses, but the entire package certainly makes the upcoming thicker, heavier Surface Pro 2 look dowdy.
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